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Sun Tracking Solar Panels: Worth It?

August 30, 2023
PalmettoPalmetto
The words "Sun Tracking Solar Panels" over an image of the sun with a target on it, representing how sun-tracking solar panels work, the technology’s pros and cons vs. fixed (non-tracking) systems, and whether solar tracking is worth it.

As a somewhat self-explanatory technology, sun-tracking solar panels “track” the sun throughout the day to increase the amount of solar power they can generate.

Therefore, if you want to maximize your property’s solar potential, you want to install sun-tracking panels… right?

Well… not always.

Although sun-tracking panels can increase an installation's energy yield, the premium equipment costs and added property considerations often outweigh the extra power benefits for most homeowners.

To help you determine if they are worth it for your installation, this article will explain how sun-tracking solar panels work before weighing the technology’s pros and cons against fixed (non-tracking) systems.

Defining Sun-Tracking Solar Panels

Sun-tracking solar panels (also known as solar trackers, rotating solar panels, and several other unofficial terms) combine clean power generation with the motorized movement of solar equipment. Sun-tracking systems can be used for thermal (heat) and photovoltaic (electricity) solar power.

Typically, the panels used in sun-tracking systems are no different from ordinary solar equipment. Instead, the “tracking” element of these installations is found on the mounting and racking system, allowing the panels to move and rotate to face the sun throughout the day.

How do solar tracking systems work?

No matter how basic or advanced a solar tracking system may be, its goal is to harness as much direct sunlight as possible throughout the day and year. Sunlight hitting your panels at an exact perpendicular angle provides the maximum power potential, so solar trackers help point your panels directly towards the sun’s rays if possible.

Following the sun’s path, tracking solar panels move through one complete rotation daily, either mounted on a single-axis or dual-axis tracker.

Using a single-axis tracker, solar panels operate like a seesaw, tilting over one point of contact, facing east to west from sunrise to sunset. With a dual-axis solar tracker, the panels can tilt both east to west and north to south for a full range of motion to optimize direct sunlight at every moment throughout the year.

Depending on the hardware and software of the installation, solar tracking systems may run autonomously or allow users to control the position of their panels. (Often called passive solar trackers.)

Tracking vs. Non-Tracking Solar Panels

The pros and cons of tracking solar panels vs. fixed solar panels are relatively straightforward. While tracking solar panels are more expensive to install than a fixed system, it is up to you to determine whether or not the extra power generation is worth your investment.

In most cases, non-tracking systems will make more financial and logical sense for average homeowners. If you have a roof that is fully exposed to the sun during daily peak sunlight hours, often a non-tracking solar panel system will still be able to produce enough power to cover your property’s annual electricity use.

At scale, however, the increased costs of tracking systems are often worth the increased energy generation potential for utility-scale solar farms, large commercial facilities, and other high-powered instances.

The Advantage of Solar Trackers

Solar panels work most efficiently in direct sunlight, so a sun-tracking system's primary benefit is maintaining optimal positioning for maximum power generation. Using today’s advanced tracking systems that follow the sun’s path throughout the year in accordance with the property’s location, rotating solar panels allow system owners to squeeze every last “drop” out of each day’s sunlight.

According to a study published in 2022, tracking solar panels can output between 10% and 60% more energy than a fixed system. While this range is highly dependent on property location, time of day, and single vs. dual-axis systems, most sources estimate that sun-tracking solar panels output between 30% and 40% more power each year than a fixed installation.

In solar farms, large-scale commercial businesses, and grid-level installations, this extra power produced can be divided amongst customers, used onsite, or sold on the open market.

Disadvantages of Solar Trackers

Despite the extra power potential, solar trackers have a few disadvantages that prevent them from always being the best choice for new solar installations.

Upfront Costs

While solar panel tracking system prices are variable and usually bundled with other project expenses, utilizing the technology will always drive the costs of your solar installation upward due to the extra equipment requirements. This can lengthen your solar payback period.

In addition to the motors and rotating components, tracking systems also need more mounting materials than an average rooftop installation, as the panels must be raised above the ground (or a flat roof) to allow for a full rotation.

Considering the premium you pay for the advanced equipment and the extra costs of the installation materials, the total upfront investment of sun-tracking solar panels can add up very quickly. Often for homeowners, these expenses exceed the financial benefits of having more efficient solar power generation onsite.

Property Requirements

With a tracking system, you can squeeze every last bit of sunlight out of the day, but only if that light can always reach your solar panels. Even if your property has ample space to host a sun-tracking solar system, the exact location of the installation should receive full, direct sunlight at every hour of the day to make the investment worth it.

On properties with buildings, trees, and other obstructions, finding a spot for rotating solar panels can be challenging in urban and rural neighborhoods. Raising electricity-generating solar panels on a tilted roof is often against local building and electrical codes, so sun-tracking systems are almost always a ground-mounted system or installed on a flat surface.

If you would like to make the most out of your limited installation space, you may be able to install a “solar tree,” which can raise sun-tracking panels above any obstructions that block direct sunlight.

More Moving Parts

One of the great things about solar energy is its passive operation. However, sun-tracking systems add a small layer of complication to this perk with more moving parts.

Although high-quality tracking equipment may be very reliable and able to be remotely monitored, panels that are constantly in motion require more ongoing attention than a fixed installation. In addition to any ordinary solar maintenance and repair, special inspections must be routinely conducted on sun trackers to ensure nothing has worn, all parts are working correctly, and the system maintains optimal performance.

Verdict: Is solar tracking worth it?

In the end, sun-tracking systems generate massive amounts of renewable energy, but they are not necessarily the solution for every solar installation.

As many homes have enough rooftop or property space for stationary panels to generate adequate electricity levels at lower investment costs, the added expenses of sun-tracking systems are more typically reserved for large-scale installations.

Today, the best uses for sun-tracking solar panel systems include community solar farms, commercial solar projects, and utility power production.

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